As the role of religion in public life continues to spark intense political debate and high-profile court cases, a group of diverse leaders from religious and secular organisations has issued the most comprehensive joint statement of current law to date on legal issues concerning church and state.
Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Christian leaders from the evangelical, mainline and Catholic traditions joined with civil liberties leaders to draft Religious Expression in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law, released Tuesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
Are persons elected or nominated to serve as government officials required to place their hands on the Bible when making oaths or affirmations? May elected officials reference religious ideas and discuss their personal religious beliefs while operating in their official capacities? Are individuals and groups permitted to use government property for religious activities and events? Must secular non-governmental employers accommodate employees' religious practices?
These are just a few of the questions which the diverse group of leaders sought to answer in the 32-page document.
"The role of religion in public life has long been a source of controversy and litigation," said Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, which produced the document. "We have brought together a diverse group of experts on law and religion to clarify what current law has to say about some of these matters."
Members of the drafting committee include those associated with faith-based groups as diverse as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Islamic Networks Group, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Queens Federation of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Former staff members of the American Civil Liberties Union and of People for the American Way also served on the drafting committee. On Tuesday 12 January 2010, representatives of the American Center for Law and Justice, the American Jewish Congress, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and other members of the drafting committee, joined Rogers for a two-hour discussion moderated by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne.
"Some of these groups are often on opposite sides of church-state litigation," Rogers said. "But while the drafters of this document may disagree about how the legal line should draw be drawn between church and state, we have been able to come together and agree in many cases on what the law is today."
The document is drafted in a question and answer format for easy reference. Previous joint statements have addressed the role of religion in public schools. This is the first document of its kind to address a wide spectrum of issues related to the role of religion in public life, Rogers said.
The 35 questions and answers which comprise the joint statement address religion and politics; religious gatherings on government property; religious expression in the workplace; chaplains in legislative bodies, prisons and the military and other issues.
In addition to printed copies of the joint statement, the Center has published an interactive website version of the statement at its website: http://divinity.wfu.edu/rpa/